What is Empathy?

What is Empathy?

What is empathy?

The famous educator, Carl Rogers, defined empathy as “the ability to understand the student’s reactions from the inside, a sensitive awareness of the way the process of education and learning seem to the student” (cited in Wlodkowski, p. 34).

As Wlodkowski points out, terms such as compassion, consideration, and understanding are all used in this same context. He breaks empathy’s effectiveness into three parts. For teaching purposes he says:

Empathy is most useful when seen and organized as follows:

1. When we have a realistic understanding of the learners’ goals, perspectives, and expectations for what is being learned.

2. When we have adapted our instruction to the learners’ levels of experience and skill development.

3. When we continuously consider the learners’ perspectives and feelings. (p. 34)

Having an understanding of our learners’ perspectives and feelings is vital; and I would add, having an understanding of our learners’ hopes, goals, self-doubts and fears from the outset is essential. In our field, where we are often trying to “un-school”—meaning to overcome learners’ fears and negative memories of school—by creating a more adult literacy learner-centred environment, we really need to be cognizant of learners’ past schooling experiences.

Here is what I would add to Wlodkowski’s discussion on empathy as applied to our field of adult literacy.

Not a “fresh start”

Wlodkowski says we need to set goals, adapt our instruction and “continuously consider the learners perspectives and feelings” (p. 34). In literacy I believe we need to take a step back a bit and include the learners’ perspectives and feelings towards their past schooling experiences. These have been formative for our learners, and not always positive. Our programs are not a “fresh start” for our adult learners, as many seem to believe. Since the past will affect the future for most of our learners, an Intake Inventory can help you ask questions about a new learner’s past schooling experiences and compare those to the learner’s anticipated perspectives and feelings about your program. In this way, we can learn much more about the new learner’s anxieties and confidence levels on how they will do in their upcoming program.

Additionally, this Intake Inventory can set an early benchmark that you can refer back to over and over to objectively discuss and evaluate how the learner feels they are doing compared with their past school experiences. This can be a personal conversation and can prove helpful in creating an early sense of success, part of enhancing learner motivation that is discussed in the next section.

Read More

Knowles, M.S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pratt, D. (1998). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Quigley, A. (1997). Rethinking literacy education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Quigley, A. (2017). Will anything be different in the 21st Century? How 107 million adults and the field for adult literacy became so marginalized. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 39-54.

Wlodkowski, R. (1999). Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.